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Salvation on the Horizon for a Century-Old Simi Valley Chapel

Worship: A benefit today will help fund a $215,000 renovation of the city's first church, St. Rose of Lima. 'It's been a very long wait,' says a historian.

June 22, 2002|KARIN GRENNAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Simi Valley's first church is a broken shell of its former self. The 100-year-old clapboard chapel sits in three pieces. Missing are a wall, bell tower and anything suggesting a spiritual past. No altar, pews or crucifix--not even a shard of stained glass remains.

But salvation has arrived.

Rancho Simi Recreation and Park District, Simi Valley Historical Society and the city of Simi Valley have rallied to save the tiny blue-and-white building. A lawn party will be held today at Strathearn Historical Park to raise money to help pay for the $215,000 project.

"It's been a very long wait for this," said Patricia Havens, museum director and city historian. "Thank heaven we've reached this point."

The park district bought the chapel in December. The district, with the Historical Society, paid $55,000 to relocate it from Simi Valley's oldest neighborhood to Strathearn park two weeks ago.

City staff members are drawing renovation plans and hope to find an architectural firm to donate its services.

Memories of the former St. Rose of Lima church fueled a 40-year drive to save the chapel. People such as Connie Luna, 72, a Historical Society board member, didn't want to let go.

Luna attended the church from the time her family moved to Simi Valley in 1935 until a larger St. Rose church was built in 1964. She sang in the church's choir; her brother was an altar boy.

"We grew up with it and it would be a very sad time if it was destroyed. I had somebody paint a picture of it because it was so special to me," Luna said.

"It just seemed like I felt something when I went in there. It wasn't cold like the new church. It was just a warm feeling."

The redwood-and-pine chapel was dedicated as Simi Valley Presbyterian Church on Aug. 10, 1902. The park district and Historical Society will commemorate the building's centennial with an evening celebration Aug. 9.

Without enough Presbyterians to keep the church going, the congregation moved out in 1908, Havens said. However, Catholics began celebrating monthly Masses in the chapel soon after and bought the building in 1912.

The next year it was dedicated as the Chapel of St. Rose of Lima, a satellite church of Santa Clara Church in Oxnard.

Despite more than doubling the chapel's capacity--to 160 seats--in the 1940s, the building couldn't hold its growing congregation by the early 1960s. Luna remembers going to Mass early just to get a seat in the back.

"Pretty soon they had loudspeakers and people standing outside," Luna recalled.

When the church's 1,500 families moved into a new church on Royal Avenue in 1964, the Historical Society wanted to acquire the building, but resident Armand Banaga, who drilled water wells for area farmers, bought the church property in 1973, said his son, Ruben Banaga.

The chapel briefly housed other congregations and served as a rehearsal studio for Ruben Banaga's Latin rock band, but remained mostly vacant for the next 37 years. The Historical Society never gave up and in December, the Banaga family sold the chapel to the park district for $10,000.

The renovation of the St. Rose chapel will include building a foundation, restoring a vaulted ceiling and constructing a back patio, pergola and garden. Construction of the foundation is expected to begin in September.

Havens hopes the refurbished chapel, along with two early Simi Valley homes and the city's first library nearby in the park, will enable visitors to visualize the town before tract homes and strip malls.

"It's so important to get people to slow down and recognize their heritage," Havens said.

Lawn party to raise money for restoration of St. Rose of Lima church, 1 to 4 p.m. today at Strathearn Historical Park, 137 Strathearn Place, Simi Valley. Lawn games, light lunch, entertainment and door prizes. $15 for adults; $10 for children 12 and younger. For information, call 526-6453.

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